The sunflower originally came from Peru in the sixteenth century where, as in Mexico, a number of different varieties grow in the wild. It was a plant highly prized by the people, who adorned their temples with sunflowers made of pure gold.
The sunflower, helianthus annuus, is a well-known tall, handsome plant which makes an attractive show at the back of the border and is a familiar sight in many cottage gardens. The stout hairy stems can grow up to 12ft (3.6 metres) high and on these grow big broad rough-textured leaves. Each stem carries one large bright yellow flower. The flowerheads are flat and totally round, often growing 12 in (30 cm) in diameter. The seeds, which start to ripen in September, are a greyish white, flat and wedge-shaped. As the seed ripens the flowerhead droops downwards.
Sunflower seeds when just ripe are rather oily but have a delicious nutty taste. In the kitchen, seeds can be added to salads and soups or lightly roasted in oil and dipped in crushed sea salt and eaten as a snack. Sunflower oil, which is easily available from grocers and health food stores, is a light, odourless oil used in cooking and salad dressings.
Sunflower is a hardy annual, growing from seed to a great height in one season. It grows best in well dug ordinary garden soil in a sunny, sheltered position. Sow the seed in late April directly into its flowering position, setting in the seeds 2ft (61 cm) apart. As the plants grow tall they may need staking. Sunflowers should never be sown in the same spot two years running as the soil becomes impoverished.
All parts of the sunflower plant have their uses but in the home it is the seed which is harvested and used. As soon as the seeds begin to ripen the flowerhead can be covered with a muslin or cheesecloth bag to stop them either being eaten by birds and insects or falling to the ground and being lost. Later the heads are cut off to finish drying indoors. They are stored in the usual way.
A syrup made with sunflower seeds is a delicious way to treat chesty colds and coughs.
* To make the syrup: Put a handful of sunflower seeds into an enamel pan with 2 cups of water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 25 minutes or until reduced by half Strain and add 4 tablespoons of sugar. Stir until dissolved, bring to the boil and boil hard for 2 minutes. Allow to cool and pour into a stoppered jar. Store in a cool place and take 1-2 teaspoonfuls 3 times a day when the cough is troublesome.
An infusion of sunflower seeds can help to relieve the distressing symptoms of whooping cough.
* To make an infusion: Take a handful of seeds and put them on a baking tray in a slow oven. Leave them in the oven until they are a honey brown. Remove from the oven and when cold grind them to a powder in the coffee mill. Pour ½ cup of boiling water on to a small teaspoonful of powdered seed. Leave to cool and strain through a piece of fine muslin or cheesecloth into a stoppered jar. Store in a cool place and use within a day or two. Take a teaspoonful at a time.
A decoction of sunflower seeds is diuretic and soothing. It can be a helpful remedy for those suffering from a persistent cough or chronic bronchitis.
* To make the decoction: Pour 2 cupfuls of cold water on to I large handful of seeds in an enamel pan. Cover and bring slowly to the boil, Simmer for about 25—30 minutes or until the liquid is reduced by half Remove from the heat and stir. Leave to cool then stir well and strain through muslin or cheesecloth into a stoppered jar. Honey can be added to sweeten. Store the jar in a cool place and use within a week.
Sunflower seeds provide a helpful remedy for coughs, colds and for other chest complaints and they can be taken in the form of a cordial which is soothing and pleasant to taste.
* To make the cordial: Add I cupful of water to I large handful of sunflower seeds in an enamel pan. Bring the mixture slowly to the boil and boil for 25 minutes. Strain the liquid into a jug and add 2 heaped tablespoons of brown sugar. Stir until it has dissolved, then add 2—3 tablespoons of Dutch gin to taste and pour the mixture into a stoppered bottle. Take 1 teaspoonful whenever the cough is troublesome about 3-4 times a day.
A simple soothing skin cream can be made from sunflower oil and comfrey.
* To make a skin cream: Make comfrey infusion by adding ¼ cupful of water to a handful of comfrey in an enamel pan. Bring it to the boil and simmer for IS minutes. Remove from the heat, strain and leave to cool. Put I egg yolk and ½ cup of sunflower oil into a bowl or an electric blender. Beat together and gradually add the comfrey in fusion until it is all well mixed together. Pour into pots and store in the refrigerator. Use within a few days.
* Sunflower seed oil makes an effective skin cleanser, leaving the skin soft, supple and smooth. Use the fingers to spread oil all over the face then massage it thoroughly into the skin. Remove the oil and the grime with a piece of dry towelling and then wash the face in the usual way to remove any traces of oil.
Sunflower stems grow thick and hard. When the flower head is removed the stems are cut, stripped of the leaves and left outside to dry. They can be chopped and used as kindling material to start indoor fires. Also, they can be burned outside as part of a garden bonfire. The resulting ash is rich in potash which is a valuable manure and can be spread on flowerbeds.